Retaining Third Graders Who Can’t Read is the Solution

A recent article in “The 74” caught my attention this week. It discussed how Tennessee and Michigan are currently debating removing the statute regarding retaining third graders who can’t read at grade level to be retained. With state testing starting, people are worried about holding back the potentially large number of these students who may not pass the test. You see, aside from the average number of students that struggle with reading at this grade level, this year’s batch of third graders were in kindergarten when the pandemic hit. People worry that the two years of virtual learning and closed schools have potentially created a glut of below-level readers. (You can hear me discuss this in more detail by clicking here). 

What would be the consequences of holding back so many students? For one, it is expensive. You will need more teachers and classrooms to manage the overflow. Could an exception be made for this group? The article states, “Parents, advocates, and educators say it’s unfair to base the decision on one assessment, especially for students who were in kindergarten when the pandemic hit. But state officials and Republican legislators argue it’s wrong to promote students who aren’t ready.” Gotta say I’m siding with the state officials on this one. 

Should they stay, or should they go?

The idea of retaining third-grade students who can’t read at grade level has long been a topic of debate in education circles. While some argue that retaining students is harmful and counterproductive, others point to research showing that retaining students can be an effective strategy for improving academic outcomes in the long term. Retaining third-grade students who are below grade level is a necessary strategy for promoting academic success, especially in light of the pandemic-related learning loss.

To start with, let’s look at the evidence. A 2011 research report funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that a student’s third-grade reading proficiency strongly predicted their likelihood of graduating from high school. In fact, students who were not reading proficiently in third grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school than their proficient peers. This research highlights the critical importance of ensuring students are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

Consequences of staying

But what about retaining students? Doesn’t that harm their academic and social development? Not necessarily. Research has shown that retaining third graders who can’t read well can be an effective strategy. It improves educational outcomes, especially if it is done early in a student’s academic career.

A study conducted by the Manhattan Institute found that students retained in third grade made significant academic gains in reading and math compared to their peers who were promoted to fourth grade. Furthermore, these promoted students sustained these gains over time, with retained students outperforming their promoted peers in reading and math up to six years later.

But what about the adverse social and emotional effects of retaining third graders who can’t read at grade level? While it’s true that being retained can be a challenging experience for students, it’s important to note that the negative effects are not universal. In fact, a 2022 study published by Hwang, NaYoung, and Cory Koedel( Annenberg Institute at Brown University) found that students retained in third grade did not experience any unfavorable effects on their social or emotional development compared to their promoted peers.

Playing catch-up

We know that retaining third-grade students who are below grade level can be an effective strategy for improving academic outcomes. But what about the pandemic-related learning loss that has affected so many students over the past year? Should we be considering retention as a strategy for addressing this loss?

The answer is yes. The pandemic has significantly impacted student learning, with many needing to catch up in reading and math. In fact, a recent study by McKinsey & Company found that the average student in the United States could lose between three and four months of learning by the end of the school year due to pandemic-related disruptions. The situation is even direr for students below grade level before the pandemic.

Retention needs a plan

Given the scale of the pandemic-related learning loss, we must consider all available strategies for promoting academic success, including retention. While some may argue that retention is not a viable strategy in the current context, recent data suggests otherwise.

A recent survey by the education news site The 74 found that, despite a wave of new state retention bills, most parents balked at the idea of retaining their children. However, parents would support retention with a specific plan to support the student’s academic and social-emotional needs. This highlights the importance of careful planning and communication when it comes to retention.

In conclusion, retaining third-grade students who can’t read at grade level is a necessary strategy. It helps in promoting academic success, especially in light of the pandemic-related learning loss. At the same time, retention is not a panacea and should be approached cautiously. The evidence suggests that it can be an effective strategy for improving academic outcomes. It may be more appealing if done early and has a clear plan to support their academic and social-emotional needs.

So Tennessee and Michigan, keep your laws in place. Give your below-level third-grade readers the skills they need to be successful students, no matter the cause of their delay.

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